Unlike the gleaming specimens that folks in the New Era were familiar with, the ones in the game restored the beasts' original look and personality. These monsters mutated by canine diseases had blood-colored skin covered with brownish blobs. They flashed their fangs, their teeth buried in bloody gums. Their bloodshot eyes oozed the vicious aura of a killer.
Perhaps someone who saw them for their first time would freeze. Most folks had only come across these beasts in biology textbooks or in less sophisticated games. But for Fang Zhao, it was a case of reactivating dormant memories.
Other than rescue missions and scavenging for food, one of their routines in the Old Era was to proactively hunt down these aggressive beasts that had badly mutated during the apocalypse. Each kill meant one fewer beast to deal with.
The chain wrapped around the metal door hadn't snapped, but the shoddy door itself was about to collapse. Fang Zhao and Zuo Yu could catch a glimpse of the shadows releasing killer vibes through the door gap. All these beasts wanted to do was shred the people in the warehouse to pieces.
Zuo Yu took a deep breath. As an experienced former special forces fighter, he was a bit spooked by the game, but it wasn't anything he couldn't handle. His body was ready to fight. Now that his boss had decided to stay, all he could do was stand there and brace himself. This was his chance to demonstrate his loyalty.
The metal door burst open, falling inward into the warehouse and causing a huge thud that sent the ground shaking. The echo of the crash was equally earth-shattering.
Boom! Boom! Boom! Boom!
A rapid succession of seven shots.
The moment the door collapsed, Zuo Yu's gun was wielded to maximum effect.
The three beasts leading the pack were down.
Killing three beasts with seven bullets was a decent performance, but Zuo Yu wasn't happy with his accuracy. By his estimation, taking down three beasts should have required five bullets or less.
Was he rusty from lack of practice? He was a regular at the shooting range and he never stopped gaming. After pondering the matter, Zuo Yu concluded the problem lay in his gun. After all, it was a dated model from the Old Era. It was understandable if it functioned poorly. Right, this antique gun must have affected my accuracy.
But the mutated beasts swarming outside didn't give Zuo Yu much time to think. The group that gathered by the door included six, not just three monsters. And others were catching up after hearing the commotion.
The remaining three beasts rushed in and swerved, hoping to bypass Zuo Yu and attack Fang Zhao directly. That was how the beasts had behaved in real life during the apocalpyse as well. Even though they had become crazed and unpredictable as a result of their mutation, the instinct to prey on the weak remained etched in their brains. Had Zuo Yu been alone, they would have focused their attacks on him, but Zuo Yu was accompanied by Fang Zhao, and Zuo Yu just took out three of their own in one go, so they elected to attack the other person in the warehouse first.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Another rapid series of three shots, but this time only one beast was killed. Another wasn't lethally shot, merely taking a tumble before getting up again, as if it didn't feel any pain.
"Boss, be careful!" Zuo Yu started keeping track of his bullet count. He took down one beast with two shots. The other was around the corner, about to bypass him and pounce on Fang Zhao, who was standing behind him. Zuo Yu did not hesitate to pull out a knife Zu Wen had found in the kitchen and had passed on to him when Zu Wen had gone offline. Just as he was about to attack, he could feel the strong current brought about by a passing body, which zipped by like a speeding train.
Fang Zhao lifted the wooden crate he was sitting on and hammered the approaching beast with it.
The crate disintegrated from the force of the impact, its wooden planks snapping into pieces. The mutated beast was knocked backward into another beast that had just entered the warehouse.
Fang Zhao took two steps forward, walking past Zuo Yu, and started covering him. A flurry of metal batons resembling an abrupt rainstorm followed, delivering densely packed blows. It was as if Fang Zhao had unleashed a one-man tornado.
Zuo Yu froze as he held up his knife. "..."
Bam! Bam! Slash! Slash!
Echoes from the disintegrated crate still lingered when the sound of thumping flesh traveled to Zuo Yu's ears, followed by the noise of cracking bones and the painful yelps of the mutated beasts.
Zuo Yu's eyes peeled open, as if he had seen something incredible, his eyeballs protruding as if they were about to fall out.
One down, two down...
The approaching beasts were slain by the hurricane-like onslaught of metal rods.
The beasts kept coming, but Fang Zhao was unperturbed. He slashed every approaching monster decisively. His moves seemed instinctual, but every blow was purposeful.
Zuo Yu could hear the sound of the metal rod landing on the beasts's bones and muscles. It resembled rolling thunder, the noise so piercing he didn't know how to respond.
One mutated beast collapsed after being struck, but it didn't die immediately, instead climbing up again after regrouping on the ground. But this time, its bloodthirsty eyes skipped Fang Zhao and zoomed in on Zuo Yu. As it growled and got ready to pounce, someone yanked one of its hind legs. The forceful pull sent the beast flying backward on a trajectory, landing on a silhouette that emerged behind it.
Fang Zhao didn't want to give them time to recover, surging forward to launch another sustained round of vigorous blows.
The blood-tainted metal rod in Fang Zhao's hand was slightly bent.
In no time, armed with his metal baton, Fang Zhao had taken down five beasts. Still holding his knife, Zuo Yu was dumbfounded, wearing a dazed expression.
Was... was... this his young, artsy boss, who couldn't endure any physical hardship?
Zuo Yu was bellowing inside. Has he f*cking gone beserk? Is he so violent because he's been infected as well?
After taking out five mutated beasts with a single metal rod, Fang Zhao dropped the badly crooked baton and calmly removed his gloves without throwing Zuo Yu so much as a glance. The gloves were cotton gloves he'd found in the crate. Now they were soaked in blood.
After tossing the bloody gloves onto the ground, Fang Zhao pulled out his gun and marched toward the entrance to the warehouse. He lifted his gun, smoke emerging from its barrel.
One bullet hit the neck of a mutated beast, the other piercing one of its bloodshot eyes and landing in its brain. The beast collapsed without a whimper.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
Apart from the first beast, which consumed two of his bullets, Fang Zhao took out the four beasts that showed up in front of the warehouse with a bullet each.
Zuo Yu observed Fang Zhao trudging through the cluster of corpses. The peace and calm he exuded was definitely genuine. Even though they were in a game, Zuo Yu could feel the frost-like killer aura that Fang Zhao projected constantly. That, coupled with his accurate shooting, made Zuo Yu wonder: between the two of them, who was the one with special forces training?
Just as Zuo Yu's head was filled with self-doubt, Fang Zhao abruptly turned and looked at him before taking a quick shot. Fang Zhao's cold stare gave him major chills. It felt as if the hair on his skin had bolted upright. His scalp went numb. The authenticity of the moment made Zuo Yu feel like he was no longer just gaming.
Has he gone so nuts as to kill a teammate?
Just as the thought flashed through Zuo Yu's head, he heard the commotion behind him.
He turned and realized that Fang Zhao wasn't aiming at him but rather at a small mutated beast about half an armlength long that had snuck into the warehouse, unbeknowst to him. The bullet struck its head and it instantly died.
What blew Zuo Yu away wasn't just Fang Zhao's accuracy but also the decisiveness with which he pulled the trigger, giving no warning whatsoever. The tremendous confidence that backed up such a level of calm—that wasn't something a newbie who had never held a real gun could muster.
Even though advancements in gaming technology meant more realistic simulations, that type of mental strength and aura couldn't have been a function of the game.
Shooting range practice?
No, it had to be more than that.
To call him an athlete was an understatement. Fang Zhao resembled a seasoned assassin.
No other threats popped up for the time being, and no suspicious noises could be heard in the vicinity. The warehouse was quiet again. The mood took a turn for the spooky. Zuo Yu felt like he had been exposed to a bitterly cold winter breeze.
"You..." Zuo Yu realized his lips were quivering. His voice stuttered.
Zuo Yu had so many questions, but when he met Fang Zhao's gaze, he held them in.
He understood that, perhaps, the less information he knew, the better off he was.
Fang Zhao had used Zu Wen's actions as an excuse to get rid of everyone else, not so his staff could calm down, but to avoid scaring the living daylights out of them. But Zuo Yu had been asked to stay, meaning Fang Zhao didn't want to hide the truth from him. Discretion was a major job requirement for any professional bodyguard. He was also the one who had shadowed his boss the closest and for the longest period of time.
Zuo Yu realized that, from now on, this boss wasn't going to hide anything from him.
"Boss, you were so... courageous and assertive just now." Zuo Yu swapped out "ruthlessly violent" at the last minute.
Fang Zhao glanced at him and said, "Oh, sorry, I was too immersed in character."
"Immersed in character" my ass! Who are you trying to kid?
Zuo Yu managed to spit out a disjointed question with quivering lips. "Boss... I... I... need to piss like a racehorse. Can I go offline to hit the loo?"
"Sure," Fang Zhao paused and added, "When you get offline, tell them to wait another half hour."
This was the most deferential Zuo Yu had been since he'd become Fang Zhao's bodyguard.
The 50th floor of Silver Wing Tower, the virtual projects department.
After Zuo Yu went offline, he emerged from the gaming cabin. The room also housed the gaming cabins of his other colleagues. It was cleared out and dedicated to gaming purposes. Now it was home to everyone's consoles—every single one of them a Fiery Bird ninth generation upgrade, including Zuo Yu's. This was what so many of their Silver Wing colleagues envied about the virtual projects department—unlimited funds and freedom.
Zuo Yu had been practically living at the office, just like everyone else.
No one else was in the room. Zuo Yu took a deep breath, wiped the sweat on his forehead, and left the room wearing a befuddled expression. He shook his head and sighed.
It was the weekend, but Zu Wen, Rodney, and others were hanging out at the office to save on home electricity and broadband bills. When Zuo Yu showed up, Zu Wen and company were in the middle of a discussion.
"Oh, Zuo Yu, you're dead too? Where's boss?" Zu Wen asked with a confused look.
"Bullshit. I'm still alive. I just needed to piss. As for boss... boss is doing just fine." Zuo Yu put special emphasis on the last two words.
The others didn't make much of his tone of voice. Rodney was curious about his sweating. "How come you're sweating so much? Is it really hot?"
"None of your bloody business." Zuo Yu didn't want to reveal the true source of his panic—Fang Zhao. He remembered Fang Zhao's instructions and added, "Boss wants you to cool down for another half an hour."
Few of his colleagues were around, so Zuo Yu also sent a message to their chat group asking them to go back online half an hour later.
"Why? Did you piss boss off again and we're collateral damage?" Zu Wen asked.
"Screw you. Are we in a position to question boss's intentions? Just follow orders. If you really want to know, you can ask him yourself when you get back online."
"I'm no idiot." Zu Wen was still ruminating over the fact that he'd lost a life over a small fish and incurred Fang Zhao's wrath once already. He wasn't stupid enough to confront his boss. "I better do some more research. There aren't too many tips online today."
Gaming teams known for posting helpful strategies had only offered crumbs so far. All they did was remind gamers to keep quiet so as not to spur the already sickly beasts into an even more crazed state. Zu Wen had gotten bit probably because he'd been too talkative in the kitchen, sending the sickly fish into action. Other players who'd died after being bitten had similar stories. Zu Wen had been bitten by a fish. Others had been bitten by mice, unknown insects, and so on. The price of carelessness was a quick death.
"If only I had followed boss's instructions in earnest," Zu Wen sighed. "Being sidelined for an hour is pure torture."
Zuo Yu's mouth kept twitching. He wanted to say something, but he didn't know where to start. He couldn't tell them the real reason Fang Zhao had sent them away.
Shaking his head, Zuo Yu headed to the pantry, where he calmed himself with a glass of water. He sat down and fell into deep thought.
People always said that virtual worlds are a window into a person's soul. Was Fang Zhao's behavior in the game his true character?
Up until now, Zuo Yu had pigeonholed Fang Zhao as an artsy young man, but after today, he knew there was much more to his boss than met the eye.
He thought back to the time he'd been traveling with Fang Zhao to gather material for his new piece, when the two of them had been zeroed in on by security guards at every cemetery they'd visited. Who had they been singling out?
Was it him?
It was Fang Zhao.
Back then, Zuo Yu had thought the artist Fang Zhao was giving off a neurotic vibe that drew the attention of the guards. Now it seemed like the guards who had the best nose for dangerous individuals had been spot on.
He also remembered all the posturing and bragging he'd done in front of Fang Zhao and wanted to slap himself on the face.
How stupid he was!
When Zu Wen entered the panty to pour himself a cup of tea, he saw Zuo Yu curled up on the sofa, mumbling, "I was wrong. I was so wrong..."
"Hey, brother! What's wrong?" Zu Wen asked.
"You don't get it. As a professional bodyguard, I'm under a lot of pressure."